This view from Church Street of the old Science and Art Institute is a familiar one to those of us who remember the old building. It was by no means such an impressive structure when it was first opened in 1864. The early lithograph below illustrates the building as it appeared in the 1860s from Creed Street. It was about half the size of the later building.
After well over 20 years of planning the new Science and Art Institute was finally under construction and due to be completed. It did not actually open until 1864 by on June 21st 1863, to mark the scientific progress that the new institution symbolised, a balloon ascent was organised.
At this date this was the only available form of air travel and naturally this created great excitement. People came from far and wide to witness the event. Special excursion trains made their way to Wolverton from the north and south.The balloon was built by a man named Coxwell, who took part in the ascent. It was capable of holding 90,000 cubic feet of gas.
The Stratford Road was just under development and the site where the Tesco supermarket presently stands was still a field. Accordingly this was chosen to inflate the balloon. It took quite a while to inflate the balloon, presumably from Wolverton’s gas supply and when the balloon held about 66,000 cubic feet, just over two-thirds of its capacity, Cowell gave the signal to the many men holding the ropes to let go. According to a contemporary report the ascent started at two minutes past one and the balloon slowly and gracefully ascended and moved in an easterly direction. After about fifteen minutes it was out of sight and perhaps ten miles away.
After witnessing the VIP’s assembled in the new Victoria Hotel for lunch. The local MPs, local clergy and senior railwaymen like J E McConnell and J Ramsbotham made up the bulk of the party but most prominent were the Duke of Sutherland, who took a strong interest in these events, and Sir Rowland Hill, the founder of the “Penny Post”, John Hanning Speke, who had discovered the source of the Nile, and Michael Faraday, the distinguished scientist.
Professor Faraday, who was then near the end of his life, spoke at the luncheon, and told those present that he had seen a balloon ascent when he was a boy and it was this that excited him to take an interest in science. He had witnessed wonderful progress over the pst 50 years and had not doubt that the next 50 years would bring about remarkable progress in scientific achievement. How right he was.
At four o’clock all and sundry, upwards of 2000 people, moved to one of the workshops which had been prepared for a concert. Various musical talents were assembled including Wolverton’s Barss Band, which opened the proceedings. This was followed by a ball. The proceeds from the concert and dance went to the Northampton infirmary – later Northampton general Hospital.
At about 8 o’clock a telegram arrived to report that the two balloonists, Coxwell and Glashier, had descended at the village of Littleport near Ely at 2:28 pm. The distance travelled in that hour and a half was about 70 miles. Ballooning was a risky business for these intrepid pioneers. On this occasion they passed through snow storm at a height of three miles and on previous occasions, at a height of 5 1/2 miles Glashier had passed out, and at 7 miles, Coxwell’s hands were so numb that he could only release the gas valve with his teeth.
This was a deliberate attempt to achieve the highest altitude ever, and in this they succeeded. Cowell was the experienced balloonist nd had been at it professionally since 1848. his companion Dr Glashier was a Fellow of the Royal Society and had been recruited by Coxwell to undertake the scientific measurements.
I was told the other day that this year the Milton Keynes College celebrates its 30th year. It was formed in 982 out of a merger of Wolverton and Bletchley Colleges of Further Education. This history of organised adult education is, in truth, much, much older and this year we are looking at 172 years of adult education in Wolverton.
From the very earliest days of Wolverton station the newcomers were looking for opportunities for self improvement. Hugh Stowell Brown, who arrived in Wolverton as a 16 year old in 1840, describes how he and his mates, lodging in a peasant cottage in Old Wolverton, would spend their spare time studying – and they were working 58 1/2 hour weeks! One of his room mates, Edward Hayes, went on to found the Hayes Engineering works at Stony Stratford.
The new arrivals in Wolverton were skilled workers and mostly literate, and having that basis in education wished to learn more. Accordingly, a group got together and founded a Mechanics’ Institute – The London and Birmingham Railway Institute for Moral and Intellectual Improvement at the Wolverton Station. (Our Victorian forebears had no interest in short, snappy titles and acronyms.) The date was June 1840, barely one year after the opening of the works and it was probably the second foundation of its kind in the entire country – the first being Owens College in Manchester, for a long time now the University of Manchester.
The LBR also built a Reading Room near the canal and William Pousett, a senior clerk, was given £25 to establish a library. Later, individual benefactors gave money which expanded the library to 700 volumes. This put the two critical components in place, the organisation and a resource library of books. Men who were knowledgeable in one field volunteered their time to teach their fellows. The evening class was invented.
It was also resolve to raise funds for a building for the Mechanics’ Institute and men contributed what they could out of their savings. For some reason, progress stalled. McConnell hinted in his speech on the occasion of the Christmas Soiree that there were divisions within the committee, although he did not say what the cause might be. He did express the wish that on this occasion they might go forward with more brotherly unity. Possibly there were differences abut how the money should be spent or how much the railway company should contribute. At any rate, the project was slow to move forward.
Eventually that day did come with a substantial commitment of funds from the LNWR and a new building opened its doors in 1864 on the corner of Church Street and Creed Street – now a car park.
This is the earliest drawing, probably done soon after it opened in 1864. It was called The Wolverton Science and Art Institute.
In this guise it continued to offer evening classes and to function as a library. Demand continued to rise in the last quarter of the 19th century and in 1890, a grant of £300 from the recently-formed Buckinghamshire County Council, enabled the institute to be enlarged.
This is how it appeared in the early 20th century.
In 1908 the Wolverton County School began its life here before the new building opened at the top of Moon Street in 1909. In that year the Science and Art Institute got its first paid Principal – a part time employee.
The evening institute was increasingly successful and many young men and women were educated there. The school leaving age in those days was 13 and most young people left school for work with only a rudimentary education.
In 1925 there were further developments. The Institute gained a full-time Principal and some staff. Part-time day classes were offered and full-time technical education was on offer for 13 year olds. In other words, young people could now continue their education beyond school without going to the County School.
Change and improvement continued over the years. After the 1944 Education Act the day school was free of tuition fees and admission was by examination at 13. Pupils normally continued to 16 and took subjects in the new General Certificate of Education. Formal qualifications through part-time study were ow available through the Royal society of Arts and through Ordinary National Certificate and Higher National Certificate.
The term “Further education” entered the lexicon and in 1954 the Wolverton Science and Art Institute was re-named Wolverton College of Further Education.
In 1956 Bletchley Grammar School opened and all the pupils who had regularly travelled to Wolverton Grammar School attended their own local school. Bletchley residents continued to make the daily train journey to Wolverton.
The days of the”Tech” were now numbered. The educational authorities started negotiations to bring the Wolverton Grammar School and the Tech together in a single institution, and in 1958 this was formalised as a single school – The Radcliffe School. The Wolverton College of Further Education now concentrated on day-release classes and evening classes with a strong vocational focus, returning in some respects to its 19th century roots.
The new college opened on a field site on the Stratford Road, (Innocently, as archaeologists later discovered, destroying the remains of a bronze age settlement on the site.) These buildings were in use for about 30 years and then demolished to make way for a housing development. Milton Keynes College now has campuses in the centre and south west.
In the meantime the old Science and Art Institute slipped into partial use, to occasional use and then disuse. In its state of disuse it became vulnerable and one night in 1970 someone started a fire, which quickly engulfed the building.
This is what it looked like the following day.
The Council quickly demolished the building without trying to reclaim it.
Further education continues to be important and people of all ages are now offered a large array of training and retraining choices, only they are no longer in Wolverton. So it is with some sadness that we note that Wolverton, once a 19th century pioneer in the held of adult education, no longer has any presence or any physical reminders of its contributions to vocational education.
Wolverton, for the most part, remains an architect-free zone.
At the beginning, the first Engine Shed was designed by an architect, although Edward Bury, the first Locomotive Superintendent, was not inclined to give the architect a free hand. The first houses, in fact all the streets, were laid out and constructed by builders, mostly by Dunkley of Blisworth. Architcets were not involved as they were with Swindon and Crewe, and you could argue that it showed.
The church and vicarage of St George (1844) was designed by an architect, and architects were called in to design the Church Institute in 1908. I don’t know about the first school (now the library) on Creed Street (1841) but I imagine an architect was used. This was certainly the case with the Science and Art Institute, which burned down in 1970. The twentieth century schools, Church Street, Aylesbury Street, Moon Street and The Radcliffe School were all designed by architects.
I don’t know if the Victoria Hotel, The Craufurd Arms and the Top Club used architects – they may have done.
In more recent times, the modern flats and high rise tower that replaced the “little street” terraces were designed by architects, as was the Agora and presumably the Tesco development.
I suppose the question I might ask, “Is there any architectural heritage in Wolverton?”
The Aylesbuty Street and Moon Street schools have some visual appeal, and the church – well, it is what it is – a 19th century gothic revival church, but too modest in scale or decoration to be impressive. The Craufurd Arms and the Top Club have some decorative appeal but I suspect they would not win prizes. The Church Institute is functional but quite boring. Some of the houses on the Stratford Road, Church Street, Oxford Street and The Square have some embellishments on their frontages. The general impression of 19th century Wolverton is that of red-brick uniformity. You have to look very carefully to see the imaginative detail.
Which leaves us with the Agora, the Gables Tower and associated flats and the Radcliffe School.
All of those concrete and steel and glass buildings of the 1960s were built with function and cost in mind and not much of a nod to the aesthetic. It seems odd to me in retrospect that we once admired the clean functional lines of 1960s architecture. I doubt if they will be much mourned when the time comes for their demolition.
The Agora had possibilities and I think the designers were genuine in their attempt to provide a central architectural feature for Wolverton. They failed in my view. The huge block divides rather than unites the town’s commercial areas, and it closed off Radcliffe Street which was one of Wolverton’s arterial streets. Inside, accommodating what appears to me to be a flea market, the atmosphere is gloomy. The exterior, although imposing, is unlovely. There is more than a hint of some clever twentieth century brain trying to patronise the practical Victorians who built Wolverton.
That’s my opinion. Here is that of Iqbal Alaam, an architect:
Despite the size and bulk of the building, it sits majestically among the Victorian neighbours, with no visual niceties or concessions, without playing second fiddle to anyone.This building is a hidden gem (not visually exciting – more like an uncut precious stone) and has a lot of lessons to offer to many people of differing disciplines.
To be balanced, the Agora does have (did have?) some potential, but whatever potential it did have was spoiled by the siting of the building. I have discussed this before (here) and had it been built to the west of Radcliffe Street the story might have been a different one. I have not had to live with the Agora but what I gather from Wolverton residents is that it is an unloved building.
My conclusion has to be that Wolverton has been poorly served by architects over 170 years. Will this change?
The event of December 21st 1849 had been organized on a vast scale. 1,500 people were catered for at a cost of between 6d. and 1s. A goodly collection of dignitaries attended. The event was reported in The Times and The London Illustrated News. Possibly as much as £1,000 was raised. No doubt there was great enthusiasm after this event.
None of this enthusiasm translated into concrete action and the project lingered for another decade. The reasons are not clear, but land acquisition may have been an issue as The Radcliffe Trust were reluctant to open up more land for development. In 1860 more land was acquired for development and the Stratford Road and Church Street could begin. A plot of land at the corner of the new Church Street and Creed Street was earmarked for the purpose by 1861. At the time the Science and Art Institute fund held £1,200 and the L&NWR was prepared to contribute £500 as long as the Institute held no debt. A plan was submitted at an estimated cost of £3,000.
A foundation stone was laid by the Duke of Sutherland in 1862 but the project stalled again. The projected cost was too high and the plans were sent back to the architect for re-drafting. The revised plans were submitted in May 1863 and approved. Only then did construction begin in earnest and the long-awaited Mechanics’ institute opened on Whit Monday, 16th May 1864. The building was enlarged in 1891.
It had been a long time coming but the result was perhaps Wolverton’s finest Victorian building and one to which many generations of Wolverton and North Bucks people owed the foundations of their education.
The ending was sad. In 1970 a fire burnt out the building. Photographs are here. No attempt was made to restore the building and it was demolished shortly after.
The Times reporter detailed many of the speeches at this event and it sounds as if they rambled on endlessly. Had we been present we may have found it boring, but 170 years later, we can find a lot of information in them about Victorian life and attitudes. Here are the main speakers:
James Edward McConnell. He was the Superintendent of Wolverton Works, succeeding Edward Bury in 1846. He was responsible for designing the faster and more powerful locomotives that once embellished Wolverton’s reputation before locomotive building was consolidated at Crewe.
George Carr Glyn was a leading figure in railway building, being first chairman of the L&BR and subsequently of the L&NWR. He was a banker and by the time he made this speech was an MP. He was later ennobled and took the title of Baron Wolverton.
Rev. Mr. Fremantle is, I think, William Robert Fremantle, second son of Sir Thomas Fremantle. The reporter introduces him as “of the new church built here by the company” but I think this may be a reporter error. The incumbent was, and had been from the beginning, George Weight, acknowledged in a later speech. This Fremantle may have been a curate, but I can’t think that he would be the one saying grace at such an important occasion while George Weight remained in the shadows. There were two Fremantles of this period who had church careers. W R Fremantle, mentioned above, and his nephew, William Henry Fremantle, who was not ordained until 1855. This leaves us with one candidate. William Robert Fremantle was a senior divine in the C of E and a respected writer and editor on theological subjects. He was probably present at the request of the directors to represent the Buckinghamshire interest. He easily outranked poor old George Weight who was merely Vicar of St. George’s. Weight is acknowledged in Glyn’s remarks but was clearly not important enough to sit at the top table.
Sir Harry Verney (1801-1894) was actually born into the Calvert family of Hertfordshire and changed his name to Verney on inheriting the Verney estates at Claydon. He was a long-serving and influential MP for Buckingham and was very active in promoting the railway interest in Buckinghamshire. verney Junction is named after him. He also married, as his second wife, Parthenope Nightingale, Florence’s sister. He is shown here in old age with Florence Nightingale.
William Lucy was Lord Mayor of Birmingham from 1849-50.
George Cruikshank was a very famous contemporary illustrator and at the time of this occasion at the peak of his fame. Even today he is remembered for his caricatures of the Regency period and his illutrations for several of Dickens’ novels. Exactly why he was asked to grace the top table is not evident. He was not, as far as we know associated with railways and the speech he gave on this occasion is not particularly entertaining. One might conclude that one of the directors invited him along. The sketch above is a self portrait of the artists in middle age. He was born in 1792 and close to 60 on this occasion.
Captain Mark Huish was the general manager of the L&NWR and is recognized as one of the great railway managers of that period. His speech might strike one today as very defensive. There were of course many railway accidents in those early years and the press gave them publicity and there was public concern, even alarm. Travel at speeds of 30 mph and above was a completely new experience for this generation and there was much trepidation. Huish, however, is responding in a manner which is common enough today – “Everyone is working very hard and doing their best in difficult circumstances.” The memorial above at Bonchurch in the Isle of Wight is from a photo taken by Kevin Quick of Leighton Buzzard. He has an excellent website about the history of Leighton Buzzard and Linslade.
Here follows The Times reporting of the speeches.
Mrs. Leonora Hibbert was the manager of the Refreshment Rooms, and from all accounts a formidable organizer. Catering for 1,500 people, especially in those times, must have been an enormous undertaking, and necessitated the hiring of a large number of temporary staff. Note that 14,000 cups and saucers had been prepared, according to the reporter. There would have been no time for washing up until after the event. I have written a brief life of Leonora Hibbert here.
Last week I featured the so-called Soiree that was held at Wolverton in 1849. The account is here. To add to this I have a long report in The Times of the day. which will add a little colour and background to the event. The report is very lengthy and detailed and it says something about the importance of Wolverton at the time that, not only the Illustrated London News (which I featured last week) but also The Times found space in their pages. I am posting this in two parts. My comments and explanations are in red.
WOLVERTON MECHANICS’ INSTITUTE
Saturday, December 22nd, 1849
(from our own reporter)A soirée in aid of the Wolverton Mechanics’ Institute was given yesterday at the works of the London and North Western Railway Company near the station. An event so interesting, not only to the workpeople, but to their employers, who have so kindly and strenuously assisted the establishment and permanent welfare of the institute, was rendered attractive to a wider circle by the report that several distinguished members of Parliament would be present and take part in the proceedings. If a numerous attendance on this occasion can give all the aid that is required, no doubt the Mechanics’ Institute of Wolverton will be the most prosperous in the kingdom. The soirée was held in one of those great piles of buildings which have been erected by the company for the construction, repairing and cure of steam engines, in all their various stages from birth to old age. A well-proportioned and lofty shed of substantial bricks and mortar (130 feet long by 90 feet broad) was selected from several larger apartments as the salon. This was the Erecting Shop at the South-East corner of the workshop complex. The building has since been demolished, but here is an exterior photograph from the 1960s.
It answered the purpose admirably, being lofty and capacious, and cool, despite the fuming heat of tea kettles and the crowd of guests who thronged it. Along the clean, whitewashed walls were ranged wreaths of holly, ivy, palm, and other evergreens, festooning the iron pipes and pillars. The light metal shafts which support the fragile looking but substantial roof were surrounded also by a quantity of the same simple decorations but here and there some grim wheel, with cogteeth, or eccentric bit of machinery that could not be got out of the way, thrust its spokes, or legs and arms, up through the leaves, and put one in mind of a savage lurking in ambush. A platform at one end raised the élite of the company into fair view of the audience, and afforded room for the musicians. The building was well and handsomely illuminated. Over the chair was a crown. And the Royal initials in gas, and there was no dearth of fiery devices along the walls – horns of plenty, stars, and wreaths, and various species of gas lamps shining through a liberal display of evergreen arches and festoons and union jacks in great variety. Teacups and saucers were laid for upwards of 14,000; and soon after 6 o’clock every place at the spacious tables was occupied. Men and women, all in their best, with smiling happy faces, thronged in, till upwards of 1,500 persons were collected in the building, exclusive of those who attended as guests. Admission was by tickets, which cost 6d. or 1s. each.Mr. McConnell, superintendent of the locomotive department took the chair at 6 o’clock, being attended by Mr. G.C. Glyn, M.P., chairman of the company, Mr. Smith, Mr. Barrow, Mr. Lucy, Mayor of Birmingham, Mr. R. Creed, Mr. J.L. Prevost, and Mr. Earle, directors, Captain Huish, manager, Mr. Stewart, Secretary &c. After grace a tremendous clatter of cups and plates took place, and lasted with unabated vigour for half an hour. Gigantic teapots and cauldrons made their appearance from the steam furnace close at hand, and were emptied of their contents as fast as the attendants could bear them along the defiles of tables. The piles of bread and butter, biscuit and cake, were raised and destroyed, and raised again in quick succession, and all was good humour, enjoyment, and loud, but not boisterous contentment, till even the little children, of whom there was a rather large supply, as we suppose they could not be left at home, were forced to cry “Hold – enough.”Thanks having been returned by the Rev. Mr. Fremantle, of the new church built there by the company, (More on the identity of this gentleman in the next post.) the musical gentlemen, under the direction of Mr. Bruton, favoured the company with “Non nobis Domine”, which was considerably approved of.
I think the view of the artist is to the east with the south facing windows on the right. The light coming through the windows at 6 pm is impossible in late December. I can only conclude that the artist drew the picture or made sketches earlier in the day and added the figures later. The fact that this was reported in the ILN December 29th 1849 gives us some sense of the importance that Wolverton held nationally at that time.
On December 29th. 1849, this was the scene at the Engine Shed.
This etching is from the Illustrated London news and they reported that there were 1,500 there for the occasion. To give you some sense of scale, the erecting shop was about 90 feet wide.
The occasion was styled a Soiree and it was designed to raise awareness and funds for a Mechanic’s Institute for Wolverton. In those days Wolverton was important enough for the ILN to send an artists and a reporter along to capture the occasion.
We don’t know how much money was raised, but it was clearly not enough and the project had to wait until 1864, when the Science and Art Institute opened its doors.